tv [untitled] June 9, 2012 8:00am-8:30am EDT
next, an oral history interview that provides a new look in the nixon impeachment inquiry. with the 40th anniversary of the watergate break-in approaching on june 17th the richard nixon presidential library released interviews with key staff charged with investigating whether there were grounds to impeach president nixon. a selection of these interviews will be televised for the first time on american history tv this june. over the next hour we'll hear from francis o'brien, chief of staff to congressman peter rodino, chairman of the house judiciary committee in 1974. this is the second of two parts. mr. o'brien describes the work and internal politics of the judiciary committee impeachment
staff, including the surprising search for a special counsel to lead the inquiry. chairman rodino named john door, seen here to the left of the congressman, as special council. mr. door presided over the hiring of a mostly young staff of lawyers and researchers, including future secretary of state hillary rodham clinton. mr. door admonished his staff not to talk about the proceedings. a warning they heeded for four decades. now, francis o'brien. >> given how important this was, this case, was the congress -- did the congress -- famous congressman speech or chairman speech, speak, but did he -- did he show emotion when he -- >> oh, yes. there was emotion here. first and foremost, rodino is italian. so he's very measured. but there were times when he would get emotional in his
measured way. there was no doubt that john and staff understood what had to be done, and i think that that was the relationship. but again by then, there was such incredible trust between great differences of opinion. why wouldn't there be? i mean again these were monumental decisions. these were un -- i remember the night, moving off your subject for a minute, i remember the night we had to send a letter to the president, the debate went deep into the night. do you actually send a letter to the president of the united states? this is kind of -- every day we had to make these kind of decisions. these were not -- we had no guidance. so all of these things, every issue, every legal issue, every political issue, had to be discussed, thought through, talked out, and you're dealing with a intellectually powerful
staff on both sides of the aisle. just powerful, intellectually powerful people in terms of their intellectual health. and then you had to sort of bring that process. so there was a lot of debate. this was not -- there was nothing -- i don't think there was an easy day in this process. from the day it began to the day it ended. >> start at the letter. this comes after the white house has issued its transcripts. >> right. >> and interviewed from senator cohen who wanted to participate. >> brought to the chairman's office. >> and this was a really hard event for him because he felt sort of left in the cold here. do you remember -- he was here only at that point the only republican ally on this particular issue. >> correct. right. and he had been courted by, in
other words court is the wrong word but he certainly had access to the congressman. and there had been conversations. and of course, again, he thought he would be an important, you know, even though he was a young member. he thought he would be helpful to the process. >> and in the end, cohen drafted the letter, not the one that was sent? >> no. it wasn't. >> you're smiling. >> it just wasn't. that's all. it's called politics. >> the democratic members needed to be satisfied? >> correct.
also i think the congressman decided what the correct letter had to be. he was deeply appreciative of congressman cohen's input. >> let's talk a bit about the tapes. did you listen to any of them? >> mm-hmm. >> what effect did they have on you? >> not much, actually. i tried -- the congressman asked me a couple of times to listen to tapes. and i tried not to -- in this process, again, this is going back, i tried not to get -- i didn't want to get personal. in other words, i didn't -- i wanted to keep a distance in this. you know, someone remarked to me, which i think was a compliment, i talked throughout, you ever said an anti-nixon word, ever. a reporter said that to me all those years later. they were telling me, i had dinner with a reporter years
ago. i mean, drew who covered the event in new york city time. she says you know, all those years you never, all those times we covered you, you never said a word about nixon, ever. and i think that came from the chairman. it also came from a personal -- not that i didn't have a view. but i didn't think it was my place -- but to get there you had to keep some distance. so i wasn't very -- i wasn't actually very kirious about the tapes. in other words there was enormous curiosity i think, and i wasn't that curious. wasn't my job. wasn't -- wasn't where i fit in. you know. people weren't asking what i -- nobody in the community is going to ask me what i thought of the tapes. and so i -- i sort of stayed out of what wasn't mine, so to speak. so i didn't have any opinion. and then i never even thought about it. >> the chairman. >> yes. >> listened to the tapes.
>> yes, he was bothered. >> can you tell us more? >> he was bothered by the language. he was bothered by sort of the tone. the same thing, the same as everybody. i think he was surprised about president nixon. i think that the tapes -- a lot of the tapes surprised him. and i lot of the tapes -- and some of the tapes he'd come back and we'd talk a little about it at night and he'd say i just -- he was bothered, i thought. he didn't think some of the things were, -- he was very proper. didn't think some of the things were very proper language and that. we never talked about nor did he ever comment about sort of the substance of the case, the substance of the tapes. but i can tell you just bothered by some of the tapes, the condition of the president, et cetera. >> did you see sort of a shift
of his position? >> no. . no, it was just -- there was -- whatever he and i talked about never went beyond he and i. from day one to that last day, it's just not what his views were. but, he tried, he tried to keep it intellectually as best as he could he tried to keep centered. >> was it hard for him to keep centered? not really. it was just his personality. he was not -- he was not very -- he was -- i mean, obviously strong democrat, but he was not very partisan.
so it didn't fit his personality, and i think the obligation so overwhelmed him, and put such a weight on him, and i think an important quality all of us had then, he was very fearful. in the sense that of not doing the right thing. and i think fear is a wonderful emotion to have in a time like this. that it keeps you on track. so, he didn't have time sort of to get out and, you know, and be bothered by this. i just was -- the whole thing was so overwhelming. >> as you -- you were out like -- if you -- pardon me, i apologize for the analogy, but you were a little like the canary in the mine shaft. when you're out talking to these conservative democrats, when did you start seeing a shift? because they must -- they're talking to you, what they're thinking, and obviously they're going to vote, they ultimately vote against president nixon.
slow? >> very slow. very slow process. and we would talk about that. but never publicly. never to the staff. to john's staff about where we thought these people were. that was a conversation that was very deeply held. and it never -- it may have gone, though i don't acknowledge it, it may have gone to the speaker or to somebody, but he never, i mean, we sort of knew where the case was. at a certain point. >> voting starts on july 27th. francis, a long time ago, did you think you had a majority for an article, article 1? >> yes. >> did you think that a month
before? or was it a week before, a day before? >> i don't remember. it was -- i don't remember when, but we had talked about it, as those nights approached. those days approached. that he thought that the case had been made. it's a better way to put it, actually. he thought the case had been made against the president. and he thought that that -- he sent that he felt was so important. probably the democrats, that they believed that the case had been made. >> when railsback and cohen and hogan are meeting with flowers, somebody telling you about that? >> flowers and i had a good relationship. died very young.
we had a good relationship. so we'd talk about, you know -- we'd get a sense of where people were. he talked to the chairman, flowers would. or to me. >> i've seen the images of the debate. flowers would be very emotional. >> mm-hmm. >> he was very emotional. >> very much. >> tell us a little bit about other kinds of fears. this is a very tense washington, isn't it? >> well, it was a very -- it was an incredible time, to look back on it. it's hard for americans to think now. i mean, we had -- we had some of the most senior members of an administration, going to prison. being -- being charged with serious crimes. and there was fear.
there was fear on my part that we were going to go to jail. i mean, that sounds crazy but i thought, man, these people will put us in jail. they could do anything. i mean, you know, you couldn't trust the fbi. you couldn't trust the justice department. i mean you couldn't trust your government. was our feeling. that just -- it didn't affect, because we -- we were all interested in one thing, what did the president -- in other words we had to sort of separate all these out from our duty, but we're citizens. and, you know, we're living in washington, d.c. and, you know, there's no doubt we felt we were all tapped and under some kind of investigations. we just took that as a course. that that is sort of the environment and we just had to be extremely cautious on how we conduct our business. >> did you have some conversations outdoors so that you wouldn't be heard?
oh, i had conversations everywhere. i don't remember. we just -- you know, just are cautious. on what you said. but it wasn't -- i wasn't so worried about that but i thought, again, i never served in government again. i thought this was the most -- it was obviously an extraordinary experience. but i couldn't do that again. it's the pressure was just so overwhelming. on everybody. forget me. and i had the least of the pressure. it was on all these people that it just was -- it was -- you were drained at the end. you were just enormously draining, and not a very happy experience. it wasn't a very happy experience. there was nothing pleasurable about doing this. you know, you don't look back and say that was a great job. it wasn't a great job. it was -- i thought, and my responsibilities, at least i was a young staffer. it was, you know, these members. i don't think anyone thought it was a great experience.
i think they think historically they did, you know, an incredible thing. you know, this process to go through, and that the american public accepted this process. but i never heard a member said, you know, that this was on a personal level sort of one of their highlights. >> do you remember anything from the moments after article 1 had passed? where were you? >> i think i was in the back. i was in the committee, probably. i don't know. i just -- >> did you know how the chairman looked? >> he was exhausted. you know, and that's all been published, he came back and he cried after it was over. from just the emotional experience.
it wasn't the only time he cried during the process. but, it was very emotional night. that i remember. >> can you recall another time he cried? >> he was italian so he was very emotional. he cried a number of times. i don't think -- there were a couple other times that he had tears. so through the experience, the pressure, the emotion, the whole process, sort of the darkest days of this process, when there was just a lot of pressure on all of us. but then there's another piece. when i told him that this was going to be televised, that was -- that's another story. >> we're going to change tapes. >> okay. >> and then we'll talk about that story. >> okay. >> and then we'll wrap up
shortly afterwards. how -- the congressman's views of president nixon shaped the way in which he handled this? >> no. i don't think so. i think i think clearly he's a democrat. and clearly he would vote for a democratic presidential candidate. but when this obligation was thrust upon him, his -- his view was the institution of the presidency. and being who he was, he had just extraordinary respect and awe for the presidency. that this was the center of everything that he believed in as a patriot. and so nixon, in a sense, was just a hold of that institution. but he felt, what he was being asked to do, what his committee was being asked to do, what the house was being asked to do, what congress was being asked to do, is to view a holder of this
institution, but he felt that the institution, above all, had to be protected. and so he didn't have any -- he didn't have the visceral feelings about nixon. i think as i said earlier, i think there was some disappointment when you hear the tapes. but there was a personal disappointment about, you know, his language. but that's -- and he thought it wasn't very presidential. but he didn't have that partisan anger that was so prevalent amongst many sort of anti-war, or very liberal members of the democratic party. he didn't -- he never -- he never voiced that kind of view. this was before or after. what he voiced was great disappointment that he felt that this individual would abuse the office. but, that was -- it was more of a disappointment in president nixon than anything else. >> how important was the fact that he was an immigrant? >> extremely important.
it -- i think it formed his whole view. that here was an opportunity, as a young man, to be an immigrant, to come to this country, and it's all the cliches. he embodied all the cliches of, he grew up to be, you could be anything. and he worked really hard at this. you know, as a young man, the stories are that he would take -- he would go out and practice speechmaking. he would put marbles in his mouth, because i think probably somebody, the greeks, or aristophanes or somebody did, but to be able to enunciate. he wanted to be american. that's what he wanted. he wanted to be an american. he wanted to sound, talk, and be an american, and be a patriot. you know, always wore, long before this had meant anything, always wore a little flag in his lapel, and it wasn't like a signal where you were liberal or conservative, he was a patriot. and so i think that was, again, it became very important story. accident of history.
but you know, here he was, almost like groomed, he was groomed for this. for this task. >> thank you. tell us about the decision to put cameras in the hearing. >> well, he always said to me that i wound up having to deal with all -- i never met a press person in my life until i got to the office. never. and then, i had no contact with press people. and every day, out in front of the office would be 25 or 30 press people. every day. and you know, following the case, following, you know, they just, everybody else, it was constant service. but, i must say, the quality of the press corps was extraordinary at this time. extraordinary human beings, in their own right. some of the great reporters of our time covered this story. and -- and he always said to me,
and that sort of was left to me, that all the press contacts, press conferences, once in awhile you would get a conversation with the chairman and john doar. and all the press would make fun of it because they had no information. it was a very -- but we'd do it every once in awhile, we'd have a little press gathering. but they just -- it was -- but so i was the -- it was important, because the congressman said, he kept saying to me remember, is you have to explain to 9 public what we're doing. and this is how you explain it. you don't give leaks or anything like that. so on a regular basis, we had to -- we had to let the public know what's going on. what the process is. very important the process. why, why this is being done. and so as this was going on, i just sort of thought in my mind, well, this is going to be televised, obviously. i mean, when the hearings actually take place, the american public has to view it. and it was very interesting.
i was very formed by -- by the watergate hearings. because you hear it was very -- the hearings, it was very chaotic and cameras and all that kind of stuff. so i had this vision, i mention by the way, the movie business, so i sort of got this visual idea that i wanted the public -- and i talked to the congressman a lot about this, too, that when, when we as citizens came in to view this, i wanted them to feel intimacy, that they and their member were -- were in a conversation in a sense. in -- in -- that they were talking to them, so i wanted everything that remotely looked like a television, or a -- or a cable, i want it gone. i had this very clean view. so, you can imagine doing this today. so, i went to the networks, and i went up to new york and i met with all the network presidents and i said, this is my vision.
this is some kid from ohio, i had a vision. i had a vision. this is my vision. i want -- i want -- i want this -- i wanted cameras. i said i want no cameras. so, -- so they proceed ed, and was taken to task for this because i had not asked for the speaker's approval, in the committee room was on the first floor, so i had them build a behind the committee -- because i would not allow cameras, i did not want any cameras behind the members. where you could -- you and i could see it. so they had to build a room outside the building where they would place the cameras and all the equipment. and then they would have little -- then there was curtains behind the members. and then they would have little holes. and then there would be no -- none of these wires. and then in the back of the room there would be a stand built which then you'd get the view of the committee. and they bought all this. at their own expense, they said absolutely. and so if you look at it, if you
look at the hearings on television, i doubt if you'll see any cameras. television cameras. but that was sort of the idea. but, that's sort of the mechanics of sort of how it was done. the important thing is the televise it. i think there was a lot of once this had already been cast, i know john was very nervous about this. decision. and that it just made him very nervous that he thought this was going to be televised. that i remember. congressman was the last -- this was his world. what else you going to do? this is the age we live in. but then the decision was made that we would televise it, and, of course, the rest is the rest. but there was some discussion around that. but it was all after it was all done. >> francis, got to ask you this,
you told us about the role that the congressman plays as the chairman. did the chairman want it to be televised? >> i can't recall. >> you're smiling. >> he was -- he wanted the public to understand, but he came from an era before television. and so i guess if his -- if he had his sort of wishes, i suppose he may -- he may have chosen something else. but -- >> francis, are you telling us that you went to new york and met with network executives, without already having permission to even televise these things? >> it was a lot of pressure. there was a lot of pressure. no decisions were made. i did go to new york. i did meet with all the executives. i did meet with, you know, t the -- the correspondents and
all the other kind of thing and had -- yes, i did. but -- it was a fact gathering. >> it's a pretty gutsy thing to do. >> again, yeah. but this came out of a relationship, i think, with the congressman. in other words, my role as a staffer never, ever would i have done anything that was not, i think, without his approval in the sense of understanding what, what his core was. and though i think because he constantly said to me, this is a public -- this must be approved by the country, by the citizens of the country, i just don't think he ever carried it to the -- in other words i felt very strongly that i was carrying out his wishes. i just don't think he understood the technology of how to do that. and so i just closed that gap. >> was this an o'brien brothers idea? >> no. that was -- i can't blame my brother for this.
this was -- this was -- this was my idea. i can't believe that the networks did this. but, you know -- >> what i want to -- because again, you -- you describe the doar selection process, when you described -- when you described the doar selection process, it's a little improvised. there's something very professional about this vision for the -- for the room. where did you -- where did you get this, where did you get it? was this something that you had been interested in production before -- >> no, no. i think, and i think back, i -- and now you reach a certain age, i think some things you're just good at and some things you're not. and i think i was lucky enough to be, you know, i was important with certain -- i don't know how you wind up with certain skills. and, you know -- intellectually
skills, but i have good people skills. not that i'm a good communicator. but i have good -- i have good people skills. even at that age. and i just think -- and i think i had a great mentor in -- in the congressman. i've just learned so much i've carried the rest of my life. but, i don't know why. in other words i look back on it, i don't know, i don't think i'd make the same decisions today. i don't think i would have done the things, and maybe it's -- it's youth. and so looking back, you say, wow, that was a good decision. but, i don't know how -- in other words i don't know, to answer you, i don't know how -- how it winds up that way, how you're good at things or not good or that, i wasn't interested in production or anything. i just knew what bothered me about the watergate hearings was all these cameras. and i just felt it was -- it was circusy for me. that was all. so it was like, i thought it was a commonsense, and again -- it's not my hearing. it sort of fit his demeanor.
in other words i had to always put myself in his -- and i think i'm pretty good at that. i am very good at putting myself in to other people's place. and i think that's how i represented. and i thought, that's the way he is. in other words, it reflected him, reflented the institution. again, his great respect for the institution. that that's how -- and why would he know how to do that. i didn't even know how to do it. but -- >> now, you brought up this issue of televising the proceedings when i asked you about the congressman showing emotion. i mean that's how you brought it up. >> did i? >> yeah. >> i don't remember. >> oh. >> what -- >> my point is that, what, did he show emotion? >> yeah, they were pretty upset. he and john were very upset with me. when i told them. they were very -- i got yelled at. you take to the wood shed, john took me to the wood shed, if you can imagine, and the congressman took me to the wood shed. >> for talking to the